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Tour de Hoody: A sprinters’ reprieve in first week of 2021 Tour de France

The peloton's speed merchants will have three clear opportunities for victory in the first week of the 2021 Tour de France.

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Throughout the next few weeks, we will be exploring in detail the route of the 2021 Tour de France. We already examined why the opening prologue has lost favor with Tour organizers. Last week, we focused on the uphill challenges of the opening weekend in France’s Brittany region. Today, we take a deep dive into the first week that sees includes a trio of stages ideal mass gallops.

Pity the pure sprinters of today’s peloton.

Long gone are the days when a rider like Alessandro Petacchi could win nine stages in one grand tour. These days, sprinters are lucky to win that many in a season.

Modern grand tour design has imposed so many hurdles and vertical on any given stage that it’s literally driven riders like Marcel Kittel and Tyler Farrar out of the sport.

Once derided for their boring course design, race organizers have gone to the other extreme during the past decade or so. Even “flat” stages in the roadbook can include thousands of meters of climbing or include a major mid-stage climb or uphill finale to spice things up.

That’s great if you’re a fan watching TV. It’s quite something else if you’re an 80kg power sprinter.

After years of elbowing the sprinters out of the frame, the Tour de France organizers offer an olive branch to the fast men in the bunch with plenty of opportunities in 2021.

And that comes as good news for today’s peloton that is as deep as it’s been in years in terms of sprinting talent. From Caleb Ewan and Sam Bennett for pure speed to Peter Sagan and Wout van Aert for the more selective finales, sprint stages are anything but boring. One of the best photographs of 2020 was the stage 11 finish-line stabs of the speeding quartet.

Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Wout van Aert, and Peter Sagan battling for the line on stage 11 of the 2020 Tour de France
Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Wout van Aert, and Peter Sagan battling for the line on stage 11 of the 2020 Tour de France. Photo: James Startt

The opening weekend is packed with explosive uphill finales, so the pure sprinters will likely hold their matches until stage 3. Between Brittany and the first touch of the Alps in the Tour’s second weekend, the sprinters will be a central part of the narrative of the first week of the 2021 Tour.

The first week of the 2021 Tour will give the sprinters three solid chances for victory.

Full stage details are yet to be confirmed, but there’s enough information out there to know the script. Let’s take a closer look:

Stage 3, Lorient to Pontivy, 182km

Looping around western France, there could be some risk of crosswinds, and the narrow, twisting roads of Brittany always ramp up the nerves. Otherwise, there is nothing that’s going to stop the first mass gallop of the 2021 Tour.

Momentum is key in any Tour, and so is the pressure to win. Every sprinter in the bunch will be kicking for this one. So that means a breakaway will have almost no chance of making it to the line.

Pontivy is hosting its first Tour finale, and it’s also the birthplace of current UCI president David Lappartient (who also serves as mayor of Sarzeau, a small coastal town south of Vannes).

None other than Remco Evenepoel won a stage here in 2018 in a junior race, in daring solo breakaway style, of course. Evenepoel would win more than 20 races in his final junior year, and there is an outside chance he will be starting the 2021 Tour. If he shows up, this one won’t fit his style. The “Wolfpack” will be riding for teammate and defending green jersey winner Bennett.

Stage 4, Redon to Fougères, 152km

There will be some threat of crosswinds and narrow roads that could give a breakaway some legs, but there’s nothing imposing enough along the route to hold back the sprinters.

This is the heart of France’s sprint country, and there are no major obstacles in the rolling terrain in what’s the final full day in Brittany. The last time Fougères hosted a Tour finale, Mark Cavendish won it in 2015. Other recent stages starting in Fougères also ended in sprints, with Marcel Kittel winning in 2013 into Tours, and Dylan Groenewegen winning into Chartres in 2018.

With such a demanding opening weekend, it’s unlikely any of the sprinters will have a real chance to wear the yellow jersey. But if they’re within shot thanks to time bonuses, this could be their last chance to grab the maillot jaune. A time trial looms on the horizon.

Stage 5, Changé to Laval Espace Mayenne, 27km (ITT)

We will take a deeper dive into the 2021 time trials in a later installment.

Stage 6, Tours to Châteauroux, 144km

Short and sweet, the course leaves Tours and spins past some of France’s most beguiling castles before charging toward Châteauroux.

The route winds out of the Loire Valley and across the wide-open wheat fields of central France where crosswinds can kick up in the afternoon.

With a third chance at a sprint in four stages, the collective force of the sprint teams should control any would-be breakaway attempts.

The finishing straight in Châteauroux is confirmed sprinter territory. In the first Tour stage here in 1998, Mario Cipollini won in thrilling fashion. Cavendish won the first of his career 30 Tour stages in 2008, and won again in 2011.

It’s unclear if Cavendish will be racing in 2021, and it’s likely Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 Tour stage victories will stand for quite some time.

Stage 7, Vierzon to Le Creusot, 248km

The sprinter party ends here.

At 248km, the seventh stage is the longest in the Tour in more than two decades. The route also packs in 3,000 vertical meters of climbing as the route pushes east across the hill country of Saōne-et-Loire.

The finishing town of Le Creusot has twice hosted Tour stages, both of them time trials. In 1998, Jan Ullrich won on the penultimate stage, but couldn’t take back enough on eventual winner Marco Pantani. In 2006, Serhiy Honchar won a stage starting here on the same day that Floyd Landis overtook Oscar Pereiro in the overall standings to claim yellow, only to see his Tour victory erased a few days later following a doping positive test.

The road stage will see the first real opportunity for breakaway specialists to have a chance for the win. With the first touch of the mountains looming on the horizon in the Alps, would-be escaping riders can’t be a GC threat if they hope to have wings for the breakaway.

The peloton should snap at the sharp, stair-stepping climb at Signal d’Uchon with about 18km to go. The 5.7km rise features ramps as steep as 5.7 percent in a climb that’s in two parts. An opening hump is followed by a quick descent before charging into the final assault up a steep wall that pinches at 18 percent. The final two kilometers are nearly at 10 percent average, steep enough to spring would-be attackers in what should be a thrilling tug-of-war between attackers and any explosive sprinter who might have made it over the top.

The finale should serve as a thrilling cap to the Tour’s first week.

And though the Tour will see more opportunities for mass gallops in the second and third week, the sprinters will not want to see their chances slip away.